On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XII

Index to this series | Text of Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad

Both first and last place may be prominent in a narrative. Occurring three-quarters of the way into Book XII of the Iliad, but presented last below, Sarpedon’s great speech on leadership ought to be known by everybody with authority and power.

A child’s sand shovels on the beach; calm sea beyond

Made presumably after Homer’s time, the division of the Iliad into twenty-four books still seems good. The twelfth book leaves us with a cliffhanger. Though the Greeks are supposed to be beseiging Troy, they are now the ones beseiged, and the Trojans have just broken through the wall around the Greek ships.

The battle was even for a while, as if the gods were weighing out success on either side, just as carefully as a weaver might weigh out her threads (lines 426–31):

But as a Spinster poore and iust, ye sometimes see strait lac’t
About the weighing of her web, who (carefull) hauing charge,
For which, she would prouide some meanes, is loth to be too large
In giuing, or in taking weight; but euer with her hand,
Is doing with the weights and wooll, till Both in iust paise stand:
So euenly stood it with these foes …

Chapman praises the metaphor in a marginal note:

A simile superior to the other, in which, comparing mightiest things with meanest, and the meanest illustrating the mightiest, both meeting in one end of this life’s preservation and credit, our Homer is beyond comparison and admiration.

If by the other simile he means the previous one, there the opposing armies are like two property owners, measuring the boundary between them down to the last inch. Yet always after balance comes imbalance (lines 431–2):

So euenly stood it with these foes, till Ioue to Hector gaue
The turning of the skoles; who first, against the rampire draue.

“Skoles” are evidently scales. Nicoll has the word spelled “scoles” in his glossary. As he says there,

In view of Chapman’s characteristically cavalier treatment of English, a glossary to any of his works might well be made to occupy more space than the original text. There is hardly a word or a phrase that he does not twist and wrest to suit his individual purposes, and his approach towards grammatical construction is ruthless.

Chapman’s habits are not necessarily virtues, but they ought to be known by anybody who thinks correctness of language is to be decided once for all by certain authorities, represented by one’s teachers in school. See my post “Writing Rules.”

Meanwhile, Jove having tipped the scales in favor of Troy, Hector breaks through the Greek defenses with a “massie stone” (lines 438–45):

… it was so huge an one
That two vast yoemen of most strength (such as these times beget)
Could not from earth lift to a Cart: yet he did brandish it,
Alone (Saturnius made it light:) and swinging it as nought,
He came before the plankie gates, that all for strength were wrought,
And kept the Port: two fold they were, and with two rafters bard;
High, and strong lockt: he raisd the stone, bent to the hurle so hard,
And made it with so maine a strength, that all the gates did cracke.

The game seems to be up. But half the epic is still to come; and we already know from the beginning of this book, XII, even if we do not remember from Book VII, that the Greek defenses will be destroyed only after the Greeks have sacked Troy and sailed home. The defenses cannot last, because they have been erected impiously (lines 4–8):

Nor could the brode dike of the Grecks, nor that strong wall they made
To guard their fleete, be long vnrac’t; because it was not raisd,
By graue direction of the Gods; nor were their Deities praisd
(When they begun) with Hecatombes, that then they might be sure
(Their strength being season’d wel with heauēs) it should haue force t’endure.

The gods are going to send a flood to wash it all away. There is a long description of this, then a sudden return to the dramatic present, in the middle of a line (namely 46, among lines 41–9):

… and not a stone remaind,
Of all their huge foundations, all with the earth were plaind.
Which done; againe the Gods turnd backe, the siluer flowing floods,
By that vast channell, through whose vaults, they pourd abrode their broods,
And couerd all the ample shore, againe with dustie sand:
And this the end was of that wall, where now so many a hand
Was emptied of stones and darts, contending to inuade;
Where Clamor spent so high a throate; and where the fell blowes made
The new-built woodden turrets grone. And here the Greeks were pent.

There are stakes in the ditch in front of the Greek wall. A mounted assault is impractical, and the Trojans should go on foot: Polydamas suggests this, and Hector agrees.

Accepting the praise of your leader can be dangerous. While the Trojans are preparing their final assault, an eagle is seen carrying a “dragon,” which ominously bites it (lines 215–20):

So stung the Eagles gorge, that downe, she cast her feruent prey,
Amongst the multitude; and tooke, vpon the winds, her way;
Crying with anguish. When they saw, a branded Serpent sprawle
So full amongst them; from aboue, and from Ioues fowle let fall:
They tooke it an ostent from him; stood frighted; and their cause
Polydamas thought iust, and spake …

Polydamas suggests to Hector that they stop while they are ahead. Hector goes ballistic, and threatens murder (lines 259–62):

… if thou dar’st abstaine,
Or whisper into any eare, an abstinence so vaine
As thou aduisest: neuer feare, that any foe shall take
Thy life from thee, for tis this lance …

In what I quoted, the eagle is called “Jove’s fowl,” but there is otherwise no suggestion that the ornithosaurian aerial combat is any kind of sign. We may therefore read Homer as David Bolotin suggests we read Thucydides, in the article I quoted in discussing Collingwood’s politics:

And since political wisdom is primarily good judgment about unprecedented, particular situations, it is not so much a subject matter to be taught as a skill to be developed through practice. Accordingly, instead of telling us whether or not he approves of a given policy, Thucydides asks us to make our own judgments, and then to subject them to the testing that the war provides.

What then do we think of omens?

Two dogs lie in the shade of a beach umbrella; the line of umbrellas continues beyond; behind them, cottages under pine trees

Returning to when Polydamas suggests leaving behind the horses in the assault on the Greeks, I note that Asius disagrees, because “prowd of his bay horse.” He tries to enter the defenses as the Greeks do with their own chariots. He and his followers are repulsed by Leonteus and Polypoetes, who first stand firm like “two high hill-bred Okes,” then attack “as a brace of Bores.”

For his own misjudgment of the situation, Asius blames God for allowing the Greeks to fly to their home and—to defend it as bees do their hive (lines 164–71):

O Ioue (said he) now cleare thou shew’st, thou art a friend to lies;
Pretending, in the flight of Greece, the making of it good,
To all their ruines: which I thought, could neuer be withstood,
Yet they, as yellow Waspes, or Bees (that hauing made their nest
The gasping Cranny of a hill) when for a hunters feast,
Hunters come hote and hungrie in; and dig for honny Comes:
They flie vpon them, strike and sting: and from their hollow homes
Will not be beaten, but defend, their labours fruite, and brood.

Polypoetes and Leonteus produce a lot of dead bodies (line 204).

All heapt together, made their peace, in that red field of strife.

This result seems echoed in the Stephen Crane poem, “War Is Kind.”

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift, blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

One might also quote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I am still going to praise the speech of Sarpedon of Lycia on the duty of a leader. We have noted that Hector will break through the Greek defenses. Before that, Homer tells us that Sarpedon’s support will be needed (lines 297–300):

Nor had great Hector and his friends, the rampire ouerrun,
If heauens great Counsellour, high Ioue, had not inflam’d his sonne
Sarpedon (like the forrests king, when he on Oxen flies)
Against the Grecians

Like a lion long kept from the hunt, Sarpedon leaps on his prey, regardless of the men and dogs defending it, because this is what a leader does. You must not take the benefits, without taking the risks.

The American ruling class, at least, seem not to agree. They send other persons’ children to fight their wars. At the end of my last post, on Collingwood, I mentioned George H. W. Bush; he at least did see combat, in World War II, and this can be counted as a point in his favor. My grandfather saw combat too, during the Allied invasion of France. He was a journalist, and the first of these to go ashore on D-Day. None of this justifies Bush’s invasion of Iraq or my grandfather’s support for the American invasion of Vietnam; it may however make their opinions worthy of consideration.

In any case, here is Homer on Sarpedon, and then Sarpedon on himself; anybody in political office ought to be held to the standard described (lines 309–32):

… yet since he did not see
Others as great as he, in name, as great in mind as he:
He spake to Glaucus: Glaucus, say, why are we honord more
Then other men of Lycia, in place? with greater store
Of meates and cups? with goodlier roofes? delightsome gardens? walks?
More lands, and better? so much wealth, that Court and countrie talks
Of vs, and our possessions; and euery way we go,
Gaze on vs as we were their Gods? this where we dwell, is so:
The shores of Xanthus ring of this; and shall not we exceed,
As much in merit, as in noise? Come, be we great in deed
As well as looke; shine not in gold, but in the flames of fight;
That so our neat-arm’d-Lycians, may say; See, these are right
Our kings, our Rulers; these deserue, to eate, and drinke the best;
These gouerne not ingloriously: these, thus exceed the rest,
Do more then they command to do. O friend, if keeping backe
Would keepe backe age from vs, and death; and that we might not wracke
In this lifes humane sea at all: but that deferring now
We shund death euer; nor would I, halfe this vaine valour show,
Nor glorifie a folly so, to wish thee to aduance:
Bur since we must go, though not here; and that, besides the chance
Proposd now, there are infinite fates, of other sort in death,
Which (neither to be fled nor scap’t) a man must sinke beneath:
Come, trie we, if this sort be ours: and either render thus,
Glorie to others, or make them, resigne the like to vs.

“Be we great in deed as well as look”: an outstanding use of the hortatory subjunctive.

Two holes in the sand of a beach; calm sea beyond (one person in it), breakwaters, and blue sky

Edited February 9, 2023

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] choice is an act, and an act is willed. In the quotation that I made in my last post, about the Iliad, of David Bolotin, on […]

  2. […] were told at the head of Book XII how Neptune, leading other gods, would cause the Greek defenses to be washed into the sea. In Book […]

  3. By Soap (Iliad Book XI) « Polytropy on February 8, 2023 at 7:44 am

    […] At dawn, Discord comes to set the theme of the book: the sweetness of war. (She is said to have been sent by Jove, so you can count this as Olympian interference too. She makes war sweeter [comparative of γλυκύς -ό] than going home. See perhaps the Stephen Crane poem, “War Is Kind,” which I quoted in 2018 as relevant to Book XII.) […]

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